George Mallory, a British schoolteacher and mountaineer, is remembered for his beauty, his athleticism, his death on Mt. Everest in 1924, and for a remark that cut through the mystical babble climbers tend to utter when queried about the risks they take and the high-elevation suffering they willingly endure. Asked why he was so intent on reaching the top of the world’s highest peak, Mallory said, “Because it’s there.”
Not so fast, anthropologist Wade Davis in effect replies in “Into the Silence.” It’s no accident that Britain threw money and men at Everest not long after the end of World War I, in which nearly a million British lives had been lost and when survivors (such as Mallory himself) were recovering from the traumas and depression inflicted by trench warfare. As Davis sums up his theme, the efforts to climb Everest “fed into a greater quest, embraced readily by a tired and exhausted people, to show that . . . the war had not expunged everything heroic and inspired.” In this reading, Mallory might have answered the big question more accurately by saying something like “because I’m trying to rekindle an idealism that the Great War did its best to destroy.”
The son of a vicar, Mallory was a product of the British boarding-school ethos, with its hazing and homoeroticism and inculcation of the self-confidence needed to help rule an empire. At Cambridge, he fell in with (without formally joining) the Apostles, a society of intellectuals that included such luminaries as E.M. Forster and Lytton Strachey. In a gushing letter to a third party, the homosexual Strachey wrote of Mallory, “His intelligence is not remarkable. What’s the need?” After dallying with other young men, Mallory entered into a happy marriage and fathered three children.
Mallory not only knew the right people; he also excelled as a climber: “He could find a route up glass,” Davis writes. No wonder he became the linchpin of the British Everest expeditions of 1921, ’22 and ’24.
Portraying Mallory as carrying not just his pack but also the weight of postwar British despondency is a promising approach to making sense of the empire’s Everest mania. Davis’s interest in the subject started as early as 1996, he explains in his annotated bibliography — three years before Mallory’s long-lost remains were found on the mountain by the American climber Conrad Anker. Davis has gone at his story with admirable industry and thoroughness but, unfortunately, not much self-discipline.
He demands monumental patience from his readers. Not until page 212 does he manage to get the first British Everest expedition underway. The delays are caused mainly by Davis’s insistence on depicting the war as experienced by each member of the team. Every time a new man joins, we are dragged back to the trenches for a harrowing account of his fellow soldiers getting shot to pieces. After two or three of these forays, the point has been made. After four or five, the point has been hammered home. After that, well, I lost count. Meanwhile, the expedition crawls along, with Davis bent on describing each turn of the winding trail, each sighting of a bird or wildflower new to British eyes, each discovery that a useful item has been left at base camp thanks to someone’s incompetence.
All the back-and-forth accentuates a bad habit of the author’s: In his zeal to protect his readers from temporal disorientation, he conveys too much of the book’s action in what Mary McCarthy called the “future past” tense. And so we are treated to such ungainly constructions as this: British explorer Francis Younghusband “would carry the icon with him for the rest of his life, and his daughter would place it reverently on his coffin when finally, having witnessed two world wars, he would pass away in 1942.” Put all those verbs in the good old past tense, and you obtain vigor with no loss of clarity. Davis also deals too often from a deck of favorite modifiers: “astonishing” “remarkable,” “literally” and especially “stunning” (which tells us almost nothing about the phenomenon being described).
For readers who manage to stick with it, however, “Into the Silence” offers rewards. Davis has a fine eye for the memorable detail, as when he shows us climbers camped so high on Everest that “water boils at too low a temperature to make proper tea.” Or when he informs us that the man after whom Mt. Everest was named, the British surveyor Sir George Everest, pronounced his name “Eave-rest.” Or that a friend of Mallory’s was famous for an African exploit: standing down “a charging rhinoceros by intrepidly opening a pink umbrella in its face.”
Perseverance will also bring you to the end, where Davis acquits himself well indeed. His account of the 1924 expedition is succinct and compelling, and by now he has made a convincing case that Mallory was trying to elevate the national mood when, along with an Oxford student named Sandy Irvine, he set out for the summit with what he rated as a mere 1-in-50 chance of reaching it. Last seen through a telescope, the two climbers were specks on a section of the mountain they should have put behind them hours earlier if they were to descend to a safe level by dark. Evidence obtained from Mallory’s body suggests that they fell to their deaths roped together.
Although their contemporaries wanted badly to believe that Mallory and Irvine had summited before dying, Davis sides with Conrad Anker’s view that — given their route, their equipment and the state of climbing at the time — such a triumph was unlikely. That leaves Edmund Hillary, a New Zealander, and Tenzing Norgay, a Sherpa, as the co-conquerors of Everest. They performed the feat in 1953, far too late to make anyone feel better about the Great War.
INTO THE SILENCE
The Great War, Mallory, and the Conquest of Everest
By Wade Davis
Knopf. 655 pp. $32.50